Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill

I finally got around to reading Lullabies for Little Criminals, which has been recommended to me by all kinds of people, including one of my students who seemed quite immune to the charms of most of the novels I was teaching in English class but who was completely captivated by this book.

I can see why, actually, because Baby, the narrator and main character of Lullabies, reminds me a lot of some of my students — or of them as they might have been at twelve or thirteen. Baby is the child of a twenty-seven-year-old drug addict dad who loves her dearly but has no idea how to care for her. Baby’s life is a chaotic journey through the streets of inner-city Montreal, from dingy boarding hotels to foster homes to a juvenile detention centre and eventually, inevitably, to dangerous shelter under the wing of a neighbourhood pimp.

Yet throughout the insanity of her life Baby remains a bright, perceptive, and somehow innocent girl, seeing her tawdry world through fresh eyes. O’Neill’s use of language here, the voice she gives Baby, is lyrical and poetic without straining credibility and without ever detracting from the story.

The first part of the novel moved slowly, I thought — it was rambling and episodic and I wondered if things were ever going to start happening. Then they do start happening and the story moves toward its conclusion, leaving the reader unsure what kind of outcome to hope for. I found the ending not quite satisfying — but it could have been much worse. The book is engaging and enjoyable, a quirky portrayal of beauty found in unexpected places.

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8 Comments

Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general

8 responses to “Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for coming by even though I wasn’t in agreeance. It is nice to be able to discuss things with people who don’t agree- even more so, it’s nice to talk books. I am glad you weren’t offended, and if you were, thanks for being nice about it.

    I look forward to reading more of your reviews.

    Just One Canadian

  2. Axel Stammler

    Hi,

    I really enjoyed the book and your comments. The book totally captured my imagination when I heard it read on the CBC, so I read it myself in full and was even more captivated. What makes it so readable even though Baby’s circumstances are not easy to bear at all is her never-failing undepressed and deeply humanistic outlook on the world. As a teacher of English (in Germany) I should love to use it in class, much more than, e.g. “About a Boy,” which has become something of a standard in year 11 in Berlin. Would you know of any source of lesson plans or reading tasks for “Lullabies”?

  3. I don’t know of any, Axel, and I don’t know if the book has made it onto any English class curricula in Canada, but if I find out anything I’ll let you know!

  4. Andy

    Hi,

    Just to let you know, I’ve successfully put Lullabies into the curriculum in 2 schools now in Ottawa with great success. Not a lot of resources yet, but it’s getting there. Great response from students on the whole, especially those kinds of kids who don’t read anything we give them.

    • Margaret Stone

      Congratulations Andy for introducing this to 2 schools in Ottawa. I remember defending a teacher in Montreal who presented To Kill a Mockingbird to her grade 5 class. Only one parent objected, and I gave her permission to sit out English class in the library with a book we mutually chose.
      Did you have any feed back from parents or principals?
      You mentioned some resources; what were they?
      I’d love to hear fom you. I’m presenting Lullabies to my book club in January – we’re all teachers.

  5. Ted Wilson

    This one is for all the teacher’s out there working with O’Neils book :

    I would love some more discussion about putting together some interesting writing assignments and/or more basic tracking tools while reading through O’Neils book. It was recommended to me last year and I love the fact that it is set in Montreal, has a female lead and does not involve vampires/gods/magic/etc. (as most “teenage” books tend to…)

    If you’re working this book – please Email me ASAP and let me know where you’re headed!

    Thanks!

  6. Cheryl

    I teach English in Regina and “Lullabies” is an option now in our school’s grade 11 curriculum. I’m reading it aloud to a grade 12 class full of students who otherwise struggle in English and have decided, given the low literacy levels in my class, to make it a primarily reader-response format…I read 20 pages aloud, then give 15-20 minutes for students to answer three questions: (1) what happened? (1-2 sentences), (2) What do you think? (4-5 sentences or MORE, I encourage them to answer the most here), and (3) what do you predict will happen next? I give 3 marks per response and try to be generous with the marks while also offering feedback on their thoughts and cajoling them to give me less plot summary and more response to #2…a challenge for students who dislike English, but it gets better as we go along. I also provide about 5-6 essay options at the end of the book – ones I’ve borrowed from another teacher and can post here if there is interest. I hope this helps!

    • That sounds great, Cheryl! I’m not teaching a class right now that gives me the option to select my own texts, but if I get a course like that again I would definitely consider using this book and would love to see your essay questions!

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